Author: E. H. Brogan

Presents For Your Poets

There is no hiding, now: the holiday season is arrived. With it comes the obligation of gifts. We must find presents for those we love, no matter how difficult, obtuse, or needless they may be.

If you are tired of getting your poet socks and underwear, or yet another Moleskin to stack in a corner, never fear. I have stepped up to the plate this December. Out of an abundance of educational do-good-ery, I have identified a number of gifts which will suit any poet in his or her right mind. They have the added benefit of being somewhat uncommon or original, enough so that as an erstwhile gift-giver you should mostly forgo the risk of watching your poet unwrap present doppelgangers in front of your friends and family at the yearly consumer-driven exchange. (If yours is the first twin revealed, all is well – but the second? Red-facedly mortifying. Sink down in your seat and just forget all of claims to your imagination during the whole of 2014.) I assure you, I have assembled this list only out of an abundance of helpfulness, and not to my benefit at all, whatsoever. This post is absolutely not a giant hint to anyone.

If it so happens that you are a poet, and tired of the constant stream of nice-but-not-quite-right pens and lined-but-not-bound-how-you-like notebooks, I hope that here’s a list of things you’ll be excited to choose from, and pointedly tell your whole family and office about. Heck, it might even help your Secret Santa, too. Just post this on your Facebook wall for help while they stalk you.

Either way, here are some gift suggestions aimed at the poets or writers in your life.

There’s this adorable mug, for starters. I’ve had my eye on it for a while, probably spotted it on Pinterest or something else.  It’s a reasonable price (less than $20) and will tickle the fancy of any writer in your life. I love its tongue-in-cheek commentary on proper English, which recalls pretty much every mother, ever, to great effect.

If you want to help your aspiring writer on his or her journey towards publication, you can always consider buying them a Duotrope subscription. Duotrope is a wonderful website/service which allows writers to track submissions. It also provides vital details about publications (lit journals, paper or electronic; presses; anthologies; etc) such as their average response time, their acceptance-to-decline ratios, what they’re looking for – often providing interviews with editors – and so on. At $5/month or $60 a year, you can choose exactly how much you’d like to spend (a 6-month subscription might be a good ballpark) to help out your favorite struggling writer.

Something that’s sure to tickle any English major in your life, particularly a poet, is Garrison Keillor and NPR’s “Professional Organization of English Majors (POEM).” This group, featured on Keillor’s weekly radio show “A Prairie Home Companion,” is, admittedly, fictitious – or at least, somewhat. I am sure a number of fans, myself included, have joined the group by way of purchasing its signature T-shirt. This shirt features POEM’s logo and another riff on correct grammar, a la the writer’s mug mentioned earlier. Here’s the T-Shirt(there’s a sweatshirt too) and here’s the double CD set of excerpts from Prairie Home focusing on that venerable group of would-be writers.

There’s more, too. A nice personal gift could involve the creation of a decorated notebook-and-pen set, where you could purchase a nice notebook and then decorate the cover or insides with little drawings, sketches, pictures, or even a collage. You could purchase particularly nice pens or decorate them in Femo to match the notebook. I think that’s a good, low-budget, but extremely thoughtful present any writer would appreciate. Plus, there’s no denying the care behind it.

But, if you’re stuck for ideas and none of these seem right, e-mail me! I have tons of ideas of appropriate poet-presents, from slim volumes to huge hunking collections of texts, as well as the accessories and writer’s tools mentioned here. I’d be happy to share.

Best of luck shopping, to you all.

The Dangers of Attachment

Weekend before last I received a rejection for a poetry submission I’d sent in less than two hours before. It burned me more than a little. The journal in question is not known for its quick turn-around and its speed made their reply feel definite – like cement. This was different than a rejection from a journal committed to fast replies. Quick rejections from journals known for quick judgments aren’t personal, even if they return in a day, or two, or less.

With those journals – the speedy ones – there is almost something gleeful about the rapid smack-down of artistic hopes. I’ve submitted to the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts twice now. Those editors get back to their supplicants – sorry, submitters – in three days, max. Maybe it helps that their truck and store is short poems – how long can it take to assess the quality of four or six lines? I’ve taken to sending them, almost masochistically, poems so compressed they could fit on a straw wrapper. On a straw wrapper, torn in half.

My little witticisms, which exist mostly as commentary on brunch, amuse the hell out of me. However, it’s hard to imagine anyone else would take them very seriously.

Brunch Poem

                                     for the bartender

The toast

is gross.

These I expect to be rejected.

Perhaps that begs the question – why submit them in the first place? Why submit at all?

Brunch Poem II

                        a response


the brioche.

When I was studying poetry in undergrad, I had the unfortunate appearance of someone who shared her poetry to hear others say they liked it. This was because occasionally, (weekly,) I’d be struck by some rhythmic impulse and scrawl off a moderately-successful mostly-poem, and become smitten. So smitten, so enthused, I’d rush to share my latest, greatest invention, ready to read it out loud to any friend around who’d listen. I was often convinced the last thing I’d written was my best. Because I was enamored with each poem I then thrust upon my roommates, workshops, and professors, it seemed I shared for compliments. Because I was impressed with myself and my writing, it seemed I expected the same out of everyone I so enthusiastically subjected to my burgeoning verse. (It is very obvious when I am excited about something.)

The truth was that I wanted haters. In “On Writing,” Stephen King advises his Dear Readers to kill their darlings. He’s stolen this advice, he knows, but that doesn’t diminish its value. I knew that I was in love with each recent creation in part simply because it was new. As I wrote more, I began to suspect that affection. The more I loved a poem, the more I wanted someone to show me what was wrong with it. I knew my feelings blinded me to my flaws, and also that that awareness could not counter-weight my bias. I shared my best poems with those I admired because I wanted to tear each poem down, to make it better. I wanted to learn. It seemed clear that the way to do that was by reducing my work into rubble, learning its weak spots, and rebuilding.

Alas, I think I seemed insufferable. Unbridled enthusiasm has that effect. I didn’t realize how I came across.

Even today, in my dotage, I find deep and perverse pleasure in hearing those I admire rip apart nouns I previously cherished. I heartily encourage, and bask in, intellectual take-downs of books or movies I fear I like too much, without good reason – sometimes, with certain caustic, opinionated, sharp-tack friends, I straight-out solicit their arguments and anaylsis against whatever piece of entertainment I suspect I love without reason, or thought, or examination. I want to hear what is wrong with things. I distrust overt, unwarranted affection for TV series, or arguments, or poems. Call me an anti-fan girl. There’s a weird joy, with black wings and twisted fingers, that follows eager behind righteous snubbing of mass-market culture and media. I am better because I can articulate why Game of Thrones is trash. Hating Malcolm Gladwell means I exceed those would-be armchair pop-psychologists who’ve read and love “Blink.”

But what keeps the smug off, for the most part, I think, is how I seek to learn from those I regard. How I choose to turn the microscope, sometimes or even often, on objects whose dissection may cause me pain. I considered Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” stellar literature for many years before I read a friend’s well-build wrecking machine of an opinion that really, nothing happens in the novel. Later I read “Neverwhere,” and its holes glared. It is easy to take down what you already hate. It is important to take down the rest.

When we discuss the things we love, instead of blindly loving them, we begin to be able to assess whether that love is merited. We learn how to discern between true artistry and cotton-candy fluff that looks good, tastes good for a moment, and has no lingering substance but sticky-fingered regret felt in our stomach and thighs. Don’t just kill your darlings. Autopsy them. Study their corpses.

A literary journal’s form rejection, whether within an hour or ten months, does not tell much. It is no blueprint to show where seams are weak and walls want insulation. As a dismissal, rejections are barely useful except as ego-check, and to remind us emotional attachment must be tempered with reason.

If you are never rejected, you never ask the right questions.

As creators it is impossible for us to know which of our beautiful, pale darlings holds the strength in its plum fists to beat upon the world. Our capricious attention dismisses what enthralls others. Devon taught me this: your opinion of your work does not matter, especially in regards to submission and rejection. What matters is the others.

At first this makes submission feel futile. But, in a calm gray twilight beyond the frustration of no good choice, this truth wedges open doors. When it doesn’t matter if you love a poem, you can send off any of them. You can keep dispassion in the thing. You can shrug, and beat yourself against the sill of the world until, during your incited unconsciousness, someone tiptoes around you to raise the sash. Do not love your poems, but push them off and fight to leave. Maybe, in time, some wild, dark, and iridescent creature will take pity on you, and let you them out.

Creative People Doing Creative Things: Theatre De L’Absurde at West Chester

(Your intrepid author on the left; not all participants pictured)

Over this past weekend I had the pleasure of performing with a dedicated group of actors, writers, poets, and comedians in a production called “Theatre De L’Absurde” (theme: “Waiting For The Show”).The group, organized by my brother, Pat, and his friend, Bob Kaplan, had been fomenting since mid-summer. I’d been involved in the first few meetings and planned to work with the collective consistently, but an unexpected work project in Virginia had kept me from their regular weekly meetings for months. Until last week, I had not attended a meeting or rehearsal since July. With the show scheduled for Friday and Saturday, starting Thursday, I worked alongside established Theatre de l’Absurd members for 3+ hours each day on our rehearsal, organization, stage-setting, and all the miscellaneous tasks that come with putting on a show. I certainly did not play a vital part, but I was present, and enthused. I helped blow up balloons.

In short, It was fabulous. I cannot express how much I regret my inability to be part of the collective non-stop, from inception to completion, without my lengthy mid-term absence.

On Thursday, I met most of the crew for the second time ever – third if I was lucky. Each member proved driven, quick-witted, and creative. Often their creativity expressed along multiple vectors – Bob, for instance, writes skits and scripts in addition to poetry, and has enough acting credibility for a (short) IMDB page. Melissa acts, writes prose, and was also our stage manager. Mike tells stories, performs at karaoke bars regularly, and was trying his hand at stand-up for the first time that weekend. I was blown away by their multifaceted talents. Besides this raw creative energy and versatility that each brought to the show, they all also had a clear stake in the production and acted as such. Ostensibly, my brother and Bob were the group’s leaders, but it was clear that everyone had a voice in how the whole show was arranged. When any person made a critique of, or suggested a change to, the show, the others listened. Every member was totally invested. This conglomerate approach also allowed for significant individual creative freedom. Personally, I was able to cut, rearrange, remove and add material to my timeslot as I saw fit, a quality I appreciated most when, after my first performance, I realized (through unscientific polls) that the general reception to one of my poems was “it was long.” If the first thing your audience says about a piece is that it’s long, it’s too long – no matter how funny any of its composite parts may be.

This was the first time in a long time I’d been involved with a public performance of any sort, and the first time in longer that I’d felt I played a part in what was actually going on besides saying my lines or reading my poems. I realized how stressful drama clubs in high school and college must be for stage managers, who(m?) I suspect must make the decisions we made as a group on their own, with no sounding board besides their taste and confidence. As a working collective, anything that failed to please our audience was a result of group decision-making, and the responsibility for any failure couldn’t be attributed to any single person. It was all of us, or none of us. As a bonus, even if no one in the audience got what we were going for in a given sketch, at least the eight or so of us did. If everything we put on turned out to be a series of obtuse in-jokes, at least we all were in.

Many experts, or at least working professionals, encourage burgeoning writers and would-be creative talent to attend writing conventions. It’s the next step after college, potential oases of knowledge and impassioned, intellectual energy. They say they’re great for networking: you’ll meet tons of people in the field, collect gallons of handshakes and names – even business cards, from particularly official or overtly spiffy creatives. I’ve taken this advice once or twice, and agree that writing conferences and seminars are great immersive experiences, especially for those grasping about in the post-B.A fog of the literary world.

But for inspiration, after this weekend I’m convinced there’s nothing better than working side-by-side with a bunch of weird, impassioned strangers who have played vital parts in getting a production off the ground from Day 1. I felt extremely welcome – it’s necessary to admit here that even at the last minute there was a bit of a scramble to ensure there were actors to fill all the parts, so it would be hard not to welcome me, or anyone, to join in, no matter how last-minute. Nonetheless, it was easy to get swept up, in the best possible way, by the energy (and anxiety) that drove everyone’s performances. I was incredibly impressed by the work of everyone involved. It made me think about performance, writing, and art in different ways, and faced me with genres I hadn’t recently considered. In addition, watching and participating in these performances gave me fresh ideas as well as polished examples of how each genre could be shaped and manipulated given the many constraints of our production. And despite my poetry obsession, I found myself confronted with revelatory methods of how to bend words around lines.

Even though our second performance had an audience of seven, both nights were great experiences. I cherished the opportunity to get close to not only one, but several people who value the same things I do, among them creativity, humor, writing, presentation, and words. I sincerely hope that come spring, my brother, Bob, and all the rest will bring their heads and hands together for another Theatre de l’Absurd. But whether or not the group has a future, what it did for me in the present – rejuvenate, impress, and galvanize – was 100% more than worth it.

“They Won’t Hurt You. They’ll Re-Structure Your Brain:” Sleeper Poems

In the entertainment industry, a “sleeper” hit is a movie which does not initially perform well, but accumulates crowds and interest as it continues to play in theaters. Presumably, no one in marketing anticipated the film in question to amaze. However, it impresses its initial viewers enough that their excitement or enjoyment of it creates a word-of-mouth, grassroots sort of encouragement to see the film. While in general the phrase refers to theatrical runs, it can apply to more expansive periods of time as well – though if the period is extended enough, the movie may be a “cult classic” instead of a “sleeper hit.” More broadly, the term can apply to any item or fad which was not initially hyped but became a surprise consumer success.

Today, I share three of my personal “sleeper” poems. Initially, I was not taken with any of the set. However, as time passed, I found myself returning to each poem, perhaps for a specific turn of phrase, or to read again how exact its imagery was, or to hear the poem come alive out loud and fully realize its rhythm. One, even, was a poem I lost and searched for over years until I found it again, a handwritten copy on small notebook paper, tucked in with a letter I never sent. I will let you guess which is that.

The first poem is one of the first poems with which I experienced the sleeper phenomenon. It’s really an excerpt from a very long poem called “The Desk,” by Marina Tsvetaeva. I first heard it while listening to a Poetry magazine podcast. I’d selected the podcast for its title, an excerpt from this portion of “The Desk”: “you with your olives, me with my rhyme.” The phrase piqued my interest immediately. But for whatever reason, the poem didn’t wow me at first. I suspect that only listening to, and not also reading, the poem, may have played a part – I tend to favor text over audio. I was disappointed the poem as a whole didn’t live up to the line that had grabbed me. However, as time passed, I found myself thinking of it again and again. I was haunted by “you with your olives, me with my rhyme.” I read (and re-read) the poem online, and listened to it on the podcast again as well. Meanwhile, my interest in Tsvetaeva grew and I began to explore her history and some of her other works. It dawned on me that I really enjoyed and admired the power of this excerpt of “The Desk.” I hope that you do, too – but if not at first, give it some time.

Much earlier in life, on a college midnight, I trawled the internet for poems. I don’t know if I was in search of anything more specific – perhaps I was researching multi-cultural poets – perhaps not. I stumbled across a lovely little poem by Adam Zagajewski, “For You,” and was captured by it. I liked it enough to hand-copy and hang on my wall. As I moved over the years, the poem moved with me. But small papers are wont to be lost or tossed when you move per annum, and thus, somehow, I lost the poem. I searched for it online to no result. Although I was fairly certain of the author (after a couple of clicks around Wikipedia to be sure) I couldn’t find anything under the title, or anything more than reminiscent of, “For You.” Every once in a while I would try to hunt it down and, after hours, fail. It turns out I was either on an extremely esoteric poetry website that night or the original post I saw was taken down. The poem had proven so obscenely elusive because it was barely extant online. Finally, one day, while rifling through some box I’d moved multiple times but not unpacked, I found a handwritten copy of “For You”. I was thrilled and this time, I copied it digitally, so as not to lose it again. As it is, the poem is posted on approximately two webpages (one of which is Pinterest). Here is a link to the other.

James Arlington Wright’s “Hook” closes out my sleeper selections. I was introduced to “Hook” in the most traditional way; a college poetry course. One of the painstakingly handsome, intellectual anti-Bukowski would-be-Bukowskis of the group read it out loud, I’m pretty sure. Although a pleasant enough memory, it’s “Hook”’s imagery that brings me back time and again. I find myself visualizing the narrator and young Sioux at their bus stop in the snow, the Sioux with his one hand and one silver hook. I have a clearer mental image of that scene than I often do while thigh-deep in the throngs of most novels’ descriptive passages. “Hook” speaks with an immense stillness, one which leaves an impression long after its reading is done.

It’s good to remember that poetry can surprise us. It’s nice to imagine that poems may even lure us in, slowly captivate their audience with well-tuned lines that linger in the brain, or play a long flirt with memorable rhythms and expressions that act like poetic hooks, earworms. It also strikes me that poetry, and poems, can be grown into. It may take time for us, or any reader, to fully appreciate the craft of a given poem, or to relate to the experience it exhibits. And it is fun to consider the opposite: what poems have you grown out of? What poems might find their way back to you?

Neither poetry nor life exists in stasis.

Poems As Invocation, Incantation, Spell

Since time immemorial, poems have been used to communicate with things and spirits of the beyond. Prayers and hymns have no other purpose, and can easily be considered a poetic sub-class, with their frequent uses of rhyme, regular meter, and supplication? There are much older incantations than the Lord’s prayer. And, if words and format help entreat the holy, it follows that such methods work with the infernal as well. It would not surprise me if incantations, invocations, and spells were among the first forms of poetry. They constitute a single class of variant methods to reach beyond our present and the tangible environment.

Typically, here I would rejoin with poems which I feel typify these forms. I would showcase, perhaps, a curse poem; an invocation of higher or lower power (perhaps the god of poetry or a lesser demon) recently published by a journal I admire; a poem whose intent was to work some kind of esoteric, small magic (beyond, of course, the magic of words).

But it is nearly Halloween. As such, it is time for the lighthearted, and the weird. As a result, I thought it would be fun to discuss horror movies that demonstrate the power and ubiquity of poems that act as magic. I also thought it would be fun to encourage you, O Best Beloved, to whip out pen and paper, or sit behind spooky, back-lit keyboards, and whip up your own wordy potions for dark, bat-wing nights.

Incantations may only present for a few seconds or minutes in these movies, but they dominate in their power to bring hell upon the poor souls to speak them. Joss Whedon’s “Cabin In The Woods” exemplifies the trope of a young fool or innocent who unwittingly speaks out loud a curse in a foreign or strange tongue that brings hell down upon the naïve youth and their party. In a different manner, the villain of the popular “Nightmare on Elm’s Street” movies, Freddy, has his own special theme poem: it begins “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you,” and features promptly in several movies of the series. And in the classic horror film “Rosemary’s Baby,” the coven led by the Castevets attempts to invoke the devil himself with a group chant.

Other magic poems abound. In “Hocus Pocus,” Bette Midler’s character and her two sisters join together for a short rhyming poem that successfully transforms another character into a chant. In the original “The Omen” (which I must heavily recommend over the re-make), an evil priest predicts that “When the Jews return to Zion/and a comet rips the sky,/and the Holy Roman Empire rises,/then you and I must die.” This is far from the only predictive poem featured in scary movies.

The truth is verse is everywhere, and versatile. I love exploring the more casual, ubiquitous uses of poetry in the modern world, and Halloween is a great time to focus on the esoteric styles of poetry that, frankly, have been with us for longer than written history – or so I posit. I recommend you check out some of these movies, or at least check in on Halloween, when I’ll post a recording of one of the most famous witchy poems of all: the Witches’ Chant from Macbeth.

Have a haunted evening.

Listen to “Little Orphant Annie;” Listen to – And Read – Our Newest Issue

Hi guys,

Just another short update this time. I’ve recorded another Halloween poem for your amusement; it’s James Whitcomb Riley’s “Little Orphant Annie,” which is written in the vernacular. I quite enjoy it as a slightly-less usual Halloween offering. Riley actually based his “Annie” off of a real orphan whom he knew – she went by “Allie,” however, and due to a type-setting error most later editions of his poems changed the name from “Allie” to “Annie.” Riley was known as the “Hoosier” poet, for his way of writing in vernacular and about common, everyday subjects. As a result the poem might sound just a tiny bit funny when you listen, as I did try to stay true to the dialact in which it’s written, but it was a fun exercise in language. I hope that you enjoy.

On another note, the newest issue of Kenning (SIX!) is here! I can’t believe we’ve made it to six issues. That may not sound like a lot but there’s both a lot of work and cat-wrangling that goes into every issue we put out. We discuss every submission as a group, whether it’s rejected or accepted, and then of course have to upload them true to form and include sound as well. Beyond that, there’s the solicitation of art for each issue (if you guys know any artists, have them send us copies of their work!) and general organizational principals which can prove very difficult for us here on the staff. :)

I’m really excited with what Kenning has done so far, and I look forward to participating in the making of Issues 7, 8 and who knows how many after that. Best wishes to all who read.


E. H.

October Audio Poem #1: The Raven, by Edgar Allen Poe

The first time I heard this poem was in fourth grade. Of course, it was October, and the librarian at my elementary school was into October, Halloween, bats, cobwebs, the whole nine yards. This is entirely appropriate dressing for libraries. How many horror movies feature scenes in libraries – villains stalking victims through the stacks, the terror of any given corner? The potential for creepiness is great.

For me, with a birthday on Halloween, such features are only bonuses. In fact, the whole month of October is a bit of a bonus for me, as I can indulge in my naturally-somewhat-morbid proclivities and dial dark humor to the utmost. As a result, I thought it would be fun to celebrate with a very light-hearted month of blogging. There will probably be more posts than usual, on subjects such as “What literary character can I be for Halloween?” and “What are the best horror movies featuring poems?” I will be sharing more audio than usual as well – because what’s better than a scary poem or two, in the October night?

At any rate, I hope you enjoy. We have much to look forward to, you and I, before the end of the month, and for me another year.

Click through to listen, or click the image above.

Delineating the Line (Line Breaks, Part I)

I didn’t realize what I was getting into when I decided to write a post about line breaks. It was a topic that often stumped me. When I began this post I realized I had never fully appreciated its depth.

My first experiments with line breaks focused on my own poetry and analyzing my break use. I began to pay attention to particularly successful line breaks in others’ poetry. Terance Hayes’ particularly impressed me, but didn’t help me articulate what constituted a “good” line break.

I began searching online for information. For most subjects, this yields enough for a fully fleshed blog post, and buoys my confidence in my own understanding, but the internet was not forthcoming. I found three or four engrossing, thought-out posts by established poets (Denise Levertov, Dana Goia) and organizations (Warning: Linked Article Is Irritating – Poetry magazine), but beyond that it was mostly lesson plans for middle school intro to poetry units. There was also a wealth of opinionated amateur blog posts* that often contradicted each other and sometimes the opinions of the more established poets whose opinions I’d perused.

I traipsed to a real ink-and-mortar library, at my local university. A search yielded four potentially useful books. Of these, one was somewhat helpful and one more relevant than I could have hoped. I discarded the other books, after review.

A lot can be said about line breaks. I do not present this first post as a complete discussion of the line. I’d prefer to approach this as the beginning of a series. I can’t speak to how frequently this series will appear, but as I explore line breaks, I’ll share what I learn. I hope you don’t object to being my partner in this, my extended exploration of the poetic line.

So begins Line Breaks, Part I.

Line breaks create certain types of lines. The type of line created can then be used to typify the mechanism at work behind a poet’s choice in breaks.

I sought to divide line breaks into “most basic type.” Doing so, I identified three major categories. This is based on my observations, but echoes (with different verbiage) Dana Goia’s article “13 Ways of Looking At Line Breaks.” These categories, listed from most to least restrictive, are breaks that create either:

“closed” lines
“formed” lines, or
open lines

Goia would refer to these as “metrical,” “visual,” and “syntactic” breaks. I prefer “closed” as it allows more leeway – I *think.* That may just be semantics.

“Closed” lines are those whose length, typically measured in meter or syllable, is predetermined by the poem’s form, or structure. Form is usually chosen before or at poem creation, so it is also predetermined. Examples of such forms include sonnets (line determined by meter), haiku (line determined by syllables), villanelles, sestinas, tanka, etc. Blank verse also uses closed lines, as blank verse consists of iambic pentameter, as opposed to free verse, with no such restriction.

“Formed” lines are shaped per the poet’s vision when they create a poem. Here, meter may not determine line length, but physical appearance on the page does. “Shape” poems, such as “Easter Wings,” belong in this category. These are less restrictive than closed lines because, while each line must be a proscribed length, that length can vary and is established at the whim of the poet, as opposed to by the rules of an outside form. I include black-out poems in this category, as the poet chooses and can alter the layout of the base text use to create a black-out poem, which ultimately creates a visual impact.

“Open” lines are the least restrictive line type. Guidance which applies to this type does not apply to the others, as the latter’s described restrictions override these general principles. However, leveraging these principles when writing more restrictive verse would not weaken it.

The basic guidelines for open lines seem to be:

  • the words at the start and end of each line develop paramount importance due to their placement. Break lines with this consideration in mind. Particularly weak words on which to break lines include most “helper” words – a, to, of, and, if, or, on, etc. (This becomes a difficult guideline to practice – how often do you use two “strong, important” words immediately after each other in a sentence? But is a good theory and makes a very important point about how words are visually perceived in a poem or line.)
  • contrary to everything your english teacher told you in middle school, the line break is a form of punctuation and does cause line rhythm and pitch to alter, in addition to creating a small pause in and of itself (this mainly comes from Levertov, but Goia acknowledges it). Your teacher just didn’t want you to think you could ditch commas or periods in hot pursuit of the merry line break.
  • line breaks play a large impact on the speed and flow of a poem. Shorter line breaks slow a poem. Long lines speed it up. This becomes interesting to consider when comparing poets who generally write in shorter lines (Kay Ryan springs to mind) to those who write longer lines or even prose poems, whose lines run margin to margin and therefore are very long indeed.
  • the key to a “good” or “effective” line break lies in its consideration. There should be some reason, for the line to break where it does. Line breaks placed “just because” and for no other reason miss out on the opportunity to capitalize on one of the important nuances of poetry. if you do not attempt to use line breaks to convey meaning/emotion/speed/etc, you are missing out on an opportunity.

These represent the very basic types of line and break. They are difficult and slippery in definition and mastery. I look forward to exploring them with you, dear Reader.


*There is nothing wrong with opinionated amateur blog posts. This is an amateur blog chock-full of such. They are simply not my preferred source – they are the same caliber as this blog post, and I think it is better to strive upwards when providing sources for a given type of written product.

September Audio Poetry: One Art – Elizabeth Bishop

“One Art” is another classic Elizabeth Bishop poem, one which I’ve supposedly successfully memorized in the past. (I manage to temporarily memorize a not-insignificant number of poems, much to my distress.) I remember reciting it in a creative writing class on a particularly vivid and quintessential fall day: the leaves were umber and russet, the breeze was just present, and the sun hot enough to elicit a sweat when I walked briskly, with my ungainly messenger bag.

Things were changing for me that day. I had had one of many “last talks” with a particular crush of mine. This one had felt especially final and as I recited this poem I held back tears. It seemed like an especially appropriate choice to memorize that semester, although I couldn’t possibly have anticipated the events that occurred that year when I picked, at the beginning of the class, to memorize Bishop’s “One Art.”

Things are changing for me this season, too. I have just moved (although admittedly, I have now moved every year for seven years – so this is perhaps a repetitive change). Although this isn’t the place to discuss it, the demands of my job are also increasing and I feel myself facing unexpected day-to-day challenges. Fall is irretrievably linked with change, and often, as a result, some small regret for the unachieved, for me. It can be very hard to approach change positively. In Bishop’s “One Art,” the narrator attempts to, but her underlying attitude is ultimately revealed through the turn in the poem’s final couplet. I, too, am working on my “game face.” However, I am full of hope that the future will bring me both good things – and the things that I want.

Happy fall, and happy listening! Click on the embedded file or click through here to listen.

The Examiner’s Conundrum

Literary analysis often provides a gratifying way to better appreciate an already-favored piece. That’s why I wrote a 25-page paper on Stephen King and horror tropes for my undergraduate senior research project. I also like to revisit favorite poems and break them down in different ways in an attempt to determine what makes them work so well, or at least so personally appealing.

However, two valid, almost-opposing obstructions arise when analysis and examination enter the picture. One can remove all joy from the pleasant, navel-gazing potential of analysis, while the other can strip confidence in one’s ability to “successfully” glean meaning from a work. The latter is often summed in a question many ask when first introduced to analysis: “How do I know I’m right?” or, with more pique, “Do authors really intend to put any of this additional, hidden meaning into their work? If they don’t, does that meaning exist?” then followed by “What about when authors vehemently deny analyzed ‘truths’ of their work?”

I suppose it’s possible that this wasn’t exactly what he was talking about, because sometimes Žižek can be hard to follow. But this was my takeaway, and my interpretation is valid, even if it’s wrong. Misinterpretations can still be accidentally true.*

I think the quote above well addresses such concerns. It’s accurate to observe that not all writers consciously inject their works with all the meaning that analysis uncovers. It’s probable that most don’t. Such deliberation would be harrowing on the part of the creator, and I imagine diminish the enjoyment and creativity of production. In addition, it’s not possible to anticipate all potential interpretations of a text, especially one’s own: the creator’s by necessity close relationship with their product logically prevents a disengaged view and the ability to interpret a product without bias. The emotional attachment of creation blinds one to certain subtleties. This also explains authors who, upon analysis, become upset or enraged at their interpreters’ conclusions. Of course those meanings may not have been meant. However, a lack of deliberation does not equate to a lack of result – how many times, for instance, have we hurt another’s feelings without intention? The result and impact remains. As a result, even unintentional interpretations possess validity.

Once the benefits of analysis are realized, a precocious reader runs the danger of falling in its other trap. Convinced of analysis’ value, the reader may become overly enthused. In advanced cases, subjects believe value cannot be gleaned from a work without its full review. Consequently, our dear reader will often endeavor to analyze everything. This scenario seems especially prevalent in poetry. The idea grows that one cannot truly understand or enjoy a poem without analyzing meter, rhyme, multiple schools of symbolism, temporal context and cultural movements, etc, to determine the given poem’s “message.” This idea insists all poems have messages, and that a failure to locate those messages is a failure on the part of the reader. This trap exhausts. It implies only the most mindful reading and review reveals a work’s value. I thought this way for a long time. I didn’t believe that reading poetry without further consideration could help me improve. I didn’t trust that I would learn a thing without conscious identification and articulation of a, any, every poem’s perceived strengths and flaws. The result? I read less and less. I tore my hair out over “Yes, but what does it mean?” One poem was a marathon. Six lines of surrealism would stymie me for weeks. What did it mean? I stopped enjoying poetry. I’d either feel guilty I wasn’t reading closely enough, or I’d struggle with minutiae, hyper-focussed to determine reasons for every detail in a verse. It is a misconception that one cannot learn from or like a poem based on its surface presentation. This is the unintentional lesson of high school lit classes in which poetry lessons are often compressed, toothless, and antiquated – boring – while ‘successful’ poetic analysis is a high-focus requisite. Unfortunately, this lesson sticks. I think it is one reason many people have difficulty approaching poetry today, in their extracurricular or non-academic lives.

I have learned that sometimes, appreciating a poem’s sound and rhythm is enough. While every fragment of a poem may possess hidden meaning, the identification of such should be a result of interest, not obligation. We can learn unconsciously as we read. When I want to understand a poem’s every nuance, or when I envy its success, then I analyze. Surrealist descriptions do not require me or you to determine what those images represent. Every poem does not need deep, philosophical hidden meaning. And you, beloved reader, need not torture interpretations out of beleaguered verse in order to like or even truly it.

Here is to the freedom of analysis – and the freedom of not having to always indulge in it.

*This quote is from the extremely entertaining article, “If Stalin Had A Ping-Pong Table,” about, of all things, Seinfeld, and published by – of all sources – Buzzfeed.

It’s All Politics – Dreary, Irresistible Politics

I find political poems troublesome. As with any genre they have their excellent moments, but I find most temporally limited. Many political poems are great contextually, within the time period of the events they discuss or are incited by. Once out of that timespan, their power – and their relevance – often fades. The irony is that political poems are inspired by specific current affairs, but maintain the most strength over time when they refrain from too directly referencing them.

Because political poems are so inevitably temporal, they’re also often fashioned with wild, wicked speed. Rattle’s Sunday feature is dedicated to poems that respond to events within the past week! Within six days of Sgt. Bergdahl’s highly polarizing rescue I read about it on Rattle. Considering that typical submission return time often stretches to several months, such rapidity is surprising. I have to wonder about the structural integrity of a poem that moves from idea to print so rapidly.* How much nuance can an idea develop in seven days or less? Maybe the author had a perfect metaphor prepared, awaiting a precise event – but how somewhat sinister the thought, premeditating sadness and drama. Does a dark poet somewhere prepare poems predicting the next serial killer?

No. I suspect I am being dramatic.

But I also suspect political poems. I do not trust a poem written so quickly and so tied to events that will become footnotes in textbooks to achieve great success, in our heartstrings or our memory. However, they represent an important genre nonetheless. Their handling of such difficult and atypical poetic matter should be examined. There is a great challenge in conveying an opinion or message without beating the reader over his or her head with it, and another challenge in well-paced narrative. The genre absolutely merits an explore. While I don’t claim that these three political poems master their genre, they do interest me. I hope you enjoy the read.

The Revolution Will Not Be TelevisedThis poem/song has been on my mind a lot recently. Written by Gil Scott-Heron amidst the 1960s civil unrest, it utilizes a technique I enjoy immensely when done well. “Revolution” describes what it will be by saying what it won’t be. In addition, “Revolution” successfully evokes events and the essence of its time period without explicitly naming them, without resorting to what have become stereotypical images of the 60s ad 70s. Instead, it provides minimist details of hallmarks of that era, although Scott-Heron did not have the benefit of distance to identify those symbols retrospectively. His skill lies in being able to encapsulate them while living among them.

Kari Gunter-Seymour’s “a letter to jani larson on the matter of sgt. bergdahl – This is the poem mentioned above that got my brain kicking on poems and politics. Bergdahl was a very hot topic one, maybe two months ago. Now, especially as certain tumultuous events within our borders rage on, he has faded from the news and our public consciousness. It seems reasonable enough – two months is so very long ago – but tell me. Does anyone know the state of the current Ebola crisis? News pushes out old news, even when that news is not so old at all. This is an effective demonstration of political poetry’s dependence on the temporal; success by seizing current events.

Khaled Juma, “Oh rascal children of Gaza…” – To be honest, again because of certain political explosions occurring within the US borders, this poem also seems less relevant than it felt to me nine days ago. However, it’s heartbreaking because unresolved conflict still wages on in Gaza and Palestine, although for now the violence has paused. This poem because it successfully conveys much, without blatantly stating its intentions. It effectively shows, but doesn’t tell. In addition, it’s an excellent example of a poem that gains in meaning via subverting its initial images and thoughts.

Although the point of these posts is three, I cannot leave you without one additional poem. “In The Loop” by Bob Hicok is perhaps the poem that pulls the most on expressing a personal experience and reaction to an event, and then ties that experience into what amounts to a political stance. This work manages to maintain verisimilitude and evoke sympathy from its readers because of how clearly it is written because something needs to be worked through: the narrator of a poem is never the author of the poem, lit class drums into us, but this poem’s narrator seems very near to being Bob Hicok himself. And it seems that this version of Bob Hicok writes poems in order to process and to grieve. This makes the poem deeply personal, and that is where it derives unexpected power.

(If you are curious, Rattle’s most recent Sunday poem responded to the news of Robin Williams’ death. Personally, I felt it lacked efficacy.)

*This is not to discount the hard work of the fine writers published at Rattle. I am sure these poems were worked over with great dedication and repeatedly. However, as someone who can take several months to polish a poem, a week seems incredible.

“The Conjugation of the Paramecium” – Audio Poem: August

Some poems are made. Some poems exist, wild in the world, waiting for the right person to find them and write them down.

Muriel Rukeyser’s “Conjugation of the Paramecium” is one of the latter. It’s one of my favorite types of poems – the factual kind, the one that relies on the beauty of real, even scientific facts in order to convey some sort of message, or at least a story, to its audience. I would hesitate, and shy away from, the idea that all poems must have messages. I’ll talk about that in a later post, but I believe the practice can drive one to frustration and oblivion.

Anyway, I was introduced to “Conjugation” in college. A girl in one of my poetry classes chose it for a memorization or presentation, and I remember moderately enjoying it. I wasn’t struck with it then, however. Then I “lost” the poem, forgetting it entirely until somehow, without conscious cause, it perked up into my mind and I re-found it, on my own. I ultimately chose to memorize it myself my final year of college. (It amazes me, by the way, how many poems I’ve supposedly memorized – many pieces of them have been lost.)

It is a long and narrow poem, free of ornamental language or ornate imagery, and I appreciate it for its directness and simplicity. I hope you enjoy it too.

Click through to listen.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Writing*

In sixth grade I had a reading teacher with a poster in her classroom. It read, “Read Every Day.” At the beginning of the year she asked how many of us read every day. Some portion of the class raised their hands. That’s when she corrected the rest of them.

“How do you know what classroom you’re in right now?” she asked. “How do you know what my name is? How do you know what your homework assignments are?” (They were written on the board.)

“That’s right,” she said, as we began to cotton on to her argument. “See that poster? That says read every day? If you didn’t read every day, you wouldn’t be able to get through life. You wouldn’t know to stop at stop signs. You wouldn’t know where to find toilet paper in the grocery store. Reading is essential. All of you do it all of the time.”

That’s how I feel about writing. We all write, every day. We have to. Whether it’s email, a text, a grocery list: all of these are kinds of writing, and I think it’s important to recognize how much of it we do on a sheer minimal level. In that regard we are all, always, writers. Text messages are a modern medium for story-telling: stories about how our day went, how we feel, what we think. Twitter, though it consists of 140-character quips, is a narrative tool. Consider good tweets the shortest version of finessed flash fiction. Best is that the more we use these varied methods, the better we get (hopefully) at conveying our stories. We learn to pace: how long must one hold a punch line to elicit the right chuckle? We learn structure: where should we begin telling what happened at the bar last night? Is it better to start with this morning’s text from the guy you forgot you gave your number to, or would it better serve the story to begin with the back-to-back tequila shots with which the night began?

I often have email conversations with friends at work. They provide a good opportunity to ask such questions. But unfortunately, sometimes problems can arise when we finesse our interpersonal communications to a certain degree. Everyone develops their own lexicon and style. Sometimes, these linguistic habits become ingrained within us and our friends to such an extent that we forget not everyone speaks, or writes, how we do. Have you ever conversed with someone and not been sure what their words said – what they meant, perhaps, by some specific phrase? While both speaking English, exchanging common words, somehow the interpretation was off.This hiccup is often exacerbated by written communication, which strips facial cues and tonal hints from the message. Was he joking? Is she being sarcastic?

Sometimes you meet someone who gets your personal lexicon. It can be great to meet to meet someone and realize you can talk all day and immediately understand another. Other times it can be real work, or at least real confusing, a battle to meet in the middle. I like to think of these times as challenges, a call-to-arms that can enable one to build an understanding of the flexibility of language and expand personal collections of diction and flair. I am a magpie with slang, phrases, and jargon – I treasure and collect them whenever possible. I joke that I keep up with slang by hanging out with my 20-year-old sister; she keeps me current.

We are all writers. I think it’s valuable to approach the world, literature, and text in general with that approach, to consider that even the person who thinks they never write really writes constantly. And this, dear readers, is what I talk about when I talk about writing.

*With my apologies to Haruki Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”

Poetry’s For The Birds

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a long time. Almost as long as I’ve been writing for this blog, in fact. I have “bird poems” on blog-idea-lists from over a year ago. 

A while ago I’d noticed, you see, that poets seem to have this thing ­with birds. Birds show up all over poems. And what started to get to me was that almost every time a bird showed up in a poem, it was this transcendent, beautiful, flying, gorgeous fictionalized concoction of a creature. The bird was breathtaking. The bird was symbolic. The bird could not be killed, or evil would overtake your ship and crew and make you a social pariah, doomed to re-tell the terrible story for eternity. (Thanks, ht) Clearly, in the poetic canon, fowl were sacrosanct.

I love subversion. So I set my sights on birds.

You see, last August I sat through four hours of legal training. The training took place on the top floor of a building in which I don’t usually work – up on 14. I’m not good in meetings. Terrible attention span, me. So when a giant black bird with the widest trowel beak landed on the nearby roof and began flapping and grooming, I was fascinated. I was especially struck by the bird’s grotesque ugliness; the awkward way it hopped from tile to tile, how its feathers stuck out, odd and uneven. It struck me that the common representation of birds in poetry is idealistically inaccurate. Up close, most birds are anything but regal.

I think poets use birds to represent an ultimate grace or quality we cannot grasp. There’s something romantic about hollow bones. When in flight birds exude effervescence, embody liberty – but consider, also, how little there is to trip over, airborne. There is an unconsidered reality in poetry surrounding birds that I think should be explored with all the glee that comes with trope reversal.[1]

At any rate, I wanted to highlight three bird poems that break past their ubiquity. As usual I chose to eschew classics, in part for their role in creating the current feathery paradigms – but I provide links to some of what I consider essential bird poetry at close-of-post. Here, I’d like to discuss somewhat more current selections that fit my taste. Without further ado, I present three poems that feature those mortal winged creatures of air and light.

In Charlotte Boulay’s “Murmuration,” from her book “Foxes on Trampolines,” the potential to descend into romanticism is averted via concrete, stream-of-consciousness narration. Boulay’s narrator describes birds, yes, but instead of a single specimen the poem treats a flock of birds as the unit it becomes in air, as the group practices pinpoint swoops and signaling to perform as a functional whole. In ways, the flock’s movement recalls the inaccurate characterization of lemmings as pack creatures that follow so blindly as to run over cliffs – but precise unity is necessary to avoid midair collision. murmuration

Late Valentine

from the NPR interview with Dean Young here

We weren’t exactly children again,
too many divorces, too many blood panels,
but your leaning into me was a sleeping bird.
Sure, there was no way to be careful enough,
even lightning can go wrong but when the smoke
blows off, we can admire the work the fire’s done
ironing out the wrinkles in favor of newer ones,
ashy furrows like the folds in the brain
that signal the switchbacks and reversals
of our thought and just as brief. Your lips
were song, your hair everywhere.
Oh unknowable, fidgeting self, how little
bother you were then, no more
than a tangerine rind. Oh unknowable
other, how I loved your smell.
- Dean Young

Dean Young always reminds me of birds. As it turns there are fewer birds than I remember in his book, “Fall Higher,” but this poem contains an important one. “Young Valentine”‘s narrator’s lover is a bird embodied, first as she emotionally “lean[s]” to him, then physically: the “fidgeting self,” “no more than a tangerine rind” – light and flitful, a being full of “song.” As the poem progresses, the narrator’s regret becomes clear, and the depiction of his former lover as something so other than human, the epitome of uncatchable conveys his past love’s ephemeral nature well.

In “As Children Know,” by Jimmy Santiago Baca, birds appear twice – first a blackbird as scene setting, then an atypical presentation of the narrator’s heart as bird, a metaphor whose strength deepens if one considers that a heart is housed within the cage of one’s ribs. Elegant indeed! The Red Bird is a wild counterpoint to the narrator’s orderly outer image, and the motif of birds as innately uncontainable repeats as the Red Bird “thrashes” against structure, longing after other personified elements of the earth and Native American mythology that appear within the poem. apache poet

Birds in poetry are deeply symbolic. Humans have long been fascinated with, and envious of, their ability to soar, dart, and dive far above us. Although we imitate flight, ours will never be as innate or seem as graceful. To us, birds represent, in many ways, the impossible. Is it any wonder we, especially writers, surround ourselves with them, putting them where we don’t even realize until after the fact?

Additional Reading

Bird-Named Literary Magazines
Sixth Finch
Heavy Feather
Corvus (no longer operational, but check out back issues)  [2]
Barn Owl Review

Essential Bird Poems
Leda and the Swan – Yeats
13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird – Stevens
Linnets – Levis
To A Waterfowl – Hall  (Previously discussed here)
The Writer – Richard Wilbur (Listen to me read it here)
Save the Candor – Amit Majumudar  (Previously discussed here; listen to me read it here)


1: I experimented with bird poems for a while as a result of this. I am proud to say that “Birds Vol. 2″ will be published by Cider Press Review at a coming date.

2: Full disclosure, I have previously been published in Corvus and am sad to see they are defunct.

Older Posts